Next spring PJ and I are going to have an exhibition at the French Cultural Center in Boston. The subject will be “The Painted Romanesque” – a collection of pictures of brightly painted Romanesque churches in France.
We are all accustomed to see Romanesque and Gothic churches with their austere bone-white pillars, walls, and vaulting and assume this look was the intent of the builders. When modern churches in the classical style are built, they usually follow this aesthetic guideline. The truth is that the medieval churches were often brightly painted with geometric patterns, frescoes, and polychrome capitals. In many churches we can see the remnants of these paintings, like in the Basilique Saint Julien in Brioude, among others. Using these fragments as a guide, modern restorers repainted the churches as they believe they might have existed originally. Whether or not their choices meet with approval, these interpretations give a powerful indication of how these churches may have originally looked.
The Église Saint-Nicolas de Civray is one of many churches in the Vienne that are brightly painted. The wall and arch decoration and the murals were painted by Pierre Amédée Brouillet in 1865.
Notre Dame la Grande was restored by Charles Joly-Leterme (1815-1885) in 1851. He painted the columns and the vaults with “Romano-Byzantine” motifs. Some critics criticize the work as fantastical and over-wrought. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans called the paintings “tattoos”.
The controversial 19th Century repainting of the choir of Sainte Radegonde was done by Honoré Hivonnait. Hivonnait received the commission in 1849 to conserve the 13th Century paintings in the church, but instead he recreated them in a neo-Gothic style. His intent was to provide a clear liturgical message to the 19th Century pilgrims to the Church. While the original paintings were destroyed, apparently there was consistency in their iconographic message. The artistic license was not appreciated – Hivonnait’s work provoked the wrath of Prosper Mérimée, the inspector of the Monuments Historique.
Between 1857 and 1860, a certain Anatole Dauvergne was paid 60,000 francs to whitewash Saint Austremoine. He must have been possessed of some kind of artistic inspiration, because he came up with this bold and dynamic result.
Anatole Dauvergne made his presence known at another church when he painted the Église Saint George in Bourbon-l’Archambault. There are a few remnants of the original painting in the church, consisting of foliage and checkerboards alternating ocher and blue the first bay of the north side aisle. Dauvergne used these as a model in painting the choir and ambulatory.
We have found no record of who painted the lovely church in Marignac. The decoration has been described as “unfortunate medley” but is by no means unattractive. The floral designs and arabesques contribute to the overall decor and highlight and emphasize the sculptures.
There was an aesthetic basis to this practice of painting with bright, radiant colors. Hugh of Saint Victor wrote in the 12th century, “With regard to the color of things, there is not need for lengthy discussion, since sight itself demonstrates how much Beauty it adds to nature, when this last is adorned by many different colors.” We know that many people prefer the austere look of the unadorned stone in their Romanesque churches. Certainly this view fits our modern notions of what is appropriate in worship. But we also prefer our classical sculpture from Greece and Rome as the pale marble, forgetting that these works too were painted with loving care by their sculptors.